In 1834, the British Government could not have sent a worse person with the worst set of instructions to China. The British Parliament chose William Napier, a Scottish lord, to be the Chief Superintendent of Trade in East Asia. Lord Napier had no experience with Chinese culture or traditions, but was nonetheless sent to Canton to take-up residence as the King’s representative and to ensure unfettered access to the Chinese market. However, setting up residence on Chinese soil without first visiting the Chinese Imperial court and kowtowing to the emperor was a violation of the Middle Kingdom’s laws. The importation of opium, something the British had been smuggling into China well before the arrival of Napier, was also illegal, and he ensured that it continued.
Through an epic series of miscommunication between Napier and representatives of the Chinese Emperor, naval clashes between the two sides erupted shortly after his arrival. The British use of naval power to force the Chinese to accept a drug that was illegal in both China and Great Britain laid the foundation for the Opium Wars. By the time of his death from typhus, Napier would still not know that the Chinese translated his name, not as Lord Napier, but as “Laboriously Vile.”
Laboriously vile might have also described the widespread opium abuse that deeply affected the kingdom’s ability to protect itself. The Chinese may have lost the Opium War due to the mismatch in firepower, but it did not help that 90 percent of the Emperor’s forces were addicted to opium. Strung out or high is no way to face the Royal Navy.
The drug fueled atrocities that pervade today’s world can also be described as laboriously vile. Consider the Libyan army’s perverse use of Viagra as part of a campaign of rape against women in the communities that rose up against Gaddafi in 2011. Consider also ISIL forcing captive women to ingest contraceptives to maintain its supply of sex slaves.
That war has been pharmacological, Lukasz Kamienski, author of a new book on this subject, could not be more correct. As he argues, homo furens (fighting man) has also been homo narcoticus (drugged man). While Clausewitz described war as a duel on a grander scale, Hobbes said that in war there is a great running away. The mediating substance between the two descriptions has been narcotics — drugs help shore one up for the grand duel. War might be, as Clausewitz argues, an extension of policy, but it is also an extension of pharmacology.
Clausewitz himself may have known about the link between drugs and the wars of his time. The friction and fog that Clausewitz described as part of all wars not only reflect the flash and haze of gunpowder and artillery usage on the Napoleonic battlefields that he witnessed. Friction and fog are also reminiscent of the lighting of a pipe and the exhalation involved in hashish smoking, something that Napoleon struggled to control among his troops during the Egyptian campaign. Kamienski details how Napoleon’s forces quickly developed a taste for hashish. This new habit began to undermine France’s effectiveness in the region to such a point that the army commissioned the development of an alcohol made of dates in the vain hope of seducing soldiers away from hashish.
So unsuccessful was Napoleon’s attempt to suppress hashish that his soldiers brought it back to France, where it eventually became popular among the bourgeoisie. This importation of drug habits reminds us of the intimate relationship between soldiering and drugging as reflected in culture. Opium and morphine became so closely associated with the military profession in the 19th century that those who became addicted were said to have contracted the “soldier’s disease.” From the interwar period, we acquired the term still used to describe hard-core addicts. Drug addicted veterans in the U.S. who scrounged for junk metal to pay for drugs earned them the nickname “junk men” and then simply “junkies.”
Sadly emblematic of a junky soldier is the character Christopher Walken played in the movie The Deer Hunter. Injured during the Vietnam War, his character goes AWOL from a military hospital in Saigon only to end up in a heroin shooting gallery of the city before its fall. He dies in a game of Russian roulette. Vietnam may or may not have been what Kamienski declares the “first pharmacological war,” but from The Deer Hunter and other movies like Apocalypse Now and Platoon, American pop culture is filled with the archetype of a drug-addled young soldier in Vietnam trying to cope with an unfamiliar way of war far from home.
American pop culture may yet develop the archetype of an American veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. Nonetheless, veterans of contemporary wars are also homo narcoticus. Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom have transformed the soldier’s disease into the soldier’s prescription. In one study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that military physicians wrote 3.8 million opioid prescriptions between 2001 and 2009, quadrupling the rate prior to 9/11. Abuse of these prescribed meds was a predictable side effect — Opioids are the only type of drugs where soldier abuse exceeds that of civilians.
Kamienski asks to consider the “war on drugs” as war while on drugs. He explores why individuals have used narcotics when they have organized themselves into groups to fight against one another in battle. Militaries have used drugs prescribed to them by their governments and individual combatants have self-medicated with available drugs, all in efforts to endure the strains of violence and death. Armed forces have used drugs as psychochemical weapons aimed to subvert their adversaries. So it’s also war by drugs as it is impossible to find an instance where war has occurred without the presence of an intoxicant.
This seems logical. The only society not to cultivate a plant for intoxication is the Eskimo. Mary Midgley argues in her book Beast and Man that beyond thirst, hunger, and sex there is a fourth human drive — to seek intoxication. So, how will the fourth drive meet the “battlefields” of so-called “fourth generation warfare” where hybrid wars and wars in the gray zone will occur? With insurgent hideouts resembling crack houses, littered as much with drug paraphernalia as with arms, militant groups composed of ex-convicts freed from prisons, and jihadist suicide bombers high on more than religious zealotry as they detonate their devices, Kamienski makes no predictions about the future operating environment. But those who want to build their own thoughts about the direction of drugged wars would be best served by starting with Kamienski’s highly impressive work.
Paul Rexton Kan is Professor of National Security at the U.S. Army War College and the author of Drugs and Contemporary Warfare (Potomac Books, 2009) and Cartels at War (Potomac, 2012). His forthcoming book is Drug Trafficking and International Security (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016). The views expressed do not represent the U.S. government.